Little Steps, Big Footprints: Chronicling The Legacy of Frontline Social Workers in India’s Fight against COVID-19


“Everyone I speak with is in need of some form of help, but ultimately, we have our limitations.” Hargun Kaur, intern at the Martha Farrell Foundation.

When the Martha Farrell Foundation and women domestic workers began a COVID-19 Relief Distribution Drive by and for women domestic workers in Delhi-NCR, Hargun was among a number of women who signed up to do her bit, without a thought. She was among at least twenty interns, volunteers and members of partner organisations, who took up the task of calling women domestic workers every day for two months, to find out how they were doing, what the on-ground community situation was like, and what support needed to be given.

“I wanted to help everyone I speak to, but we had limited resources. We needed to make tough decisions – whom to reach out to first, which family’s need was more urgent,” says Hargun.

Needless to say, the work was challenging, and likely reflective of the struggles of thousands of people around the country, who responded to the colossal impacts of the COVID-19 second wave in India, contributing their time and efforts to offer support, verify needs and support people in distress. Against the backdrop of a crumbling healthcare system, wide scale chaos, and grim tidings of the rising number of cases, every call made, every support offered, came at a certain personal cost.

Domestic worker champions Meera Devi (Left) and Sarita Devi (Right) coordinating relief efforts on-the-ground in Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, during the second wave of COVID-19 in India.

“Before making any call, I would prepare myself mentally for every conversation. I knew this work was challenging, but it was also extremely important to me,” says Samiksha Jha, Program Officer at the Martha Farrell Foundation, who led the relief distribution drive. “We also knew that the women we were speaking to were already on the backfoot after the impacts of the first wave of COVID-19 in India, so the conversations were bound to be challenging. In a lot of ways, the situation itself was preparing us.”

Taking the Tough Calls

 At every step, the team speaking to women domestic workers had to make tough decisions – whom to support, which family needed more help, and how to prioritise one’s need over the other’s, especially when the crisis had reached their own homes, their own families. Added to that, the work being done with women from different communities also had its impacts on the Relief Team’s personal lives.

“It is difficult to put my struggles into words,” says Anita Kapoor, founder of the Sheheri Mahila Kamgar Union, and a longstanding partner of the Martha Farrell Foundation. Ms. Kapoor’s efforts during the relief drive helped reach urgent relief to nearly 600 women domestic workers and their families in Delhi-NCR. “On most days, I was unable to sleep at night. I have been working in the community for a long time, and we’ve built a relationship with the women there. Seeing them suffer really affected me. I would get calls late at night, and my personal life was completely disrupted. But as women, I believe that we need to stand up for one another and help one another. We can’t just stand by and watch other women struggle, without doing anything.”

The Extra Mile

The team also learned to deal with the fact that women domestic workers in need of help were hesitant to ask for it. They are proud of their identities as breadwinners of the family, and asking for support doesn’t come easy, even in such a time of crisis.

“Most of the women I spoke to found it very difficult to ask for ration. They would mention their challenges, but wouldn’t ask for help directly,” says Nida Zareen, Intern, Martha Farrell Foundation. “Initially, I didn’t know how to deal with this, but then I realised I just had to reach out to them over and over again, because we knew the need was there.”

 Moreover, the conversations with domestic workers were designed to be interventions beyond relief. Every volunteer, intern and partner learned of heartrending experiences shared by the women, experiences that were difficult to listen to.

“In the most challenging call I made, the woman I was speaking with began crying on the call. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to help, so I listened to express my support and solidarity ,” says Hargun. “Another woman I spoke to had lost her husband and her son recently.”

 Feedback from the women domestic workers revealed how in listening, Hargun had helped immensely. “Sometimes, it became too difficult to listen to the experiences. I would feel like crying, but I would never ask them to stop, or cut the call. It was their way of coping, and by listening, I was supporting them,” she says.

Women hold one another up during the COVID-19 second wave.

The impacts of having these conversations took their toll. “I spent several sleepless nights thinking about the women, especially before the relief work began,” says Sister Anushya, a coordinator with the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, a Union that partnered with the Foundation to help women domestic workers during the second wave. “I used to have a headache all the time, and I developed a toothache. So many women were coming to me, hoping for some kind of support. Through the relief work, I was finally able to help them, and that was a huge relief for me.”

Little Lessons

 Tough as the conversations were, they imparted valuable lessons to the women having them, some bitter, some necessary.

“Every time I spoke to someone, I came to terms with my privilege in society,” says Nida. For her the conversations helped develop character and motivate her to continue the work with greater determination.

“One of the women I spoke to told me she used to help people in need during the first wave, but wasn’t able to because her financial situation deteriorated in the second wave. Despite her hardship, she helped us identify more people we could support, which was very motivating,” says Hargun.

Samiksha recalls speaking to a domestic worker who began laughing when Samiksha asked her if she had hand sanitisers. “She said ‘If I had Rs 50, wouldn’t I buy rice instead of sanitizer?’” Hearing this has shaped Samiksha’s outlook and career as a social development worker forever, she says.

Finding Hope and Resilience in One Another

When asked if they would do this work again, every one of the women quoted above said they would jump at the chance. What keeps them coming back? According to them, it’s the women themselves.

“Even when I’m no longer working with MFF, I get calls from the women I’d spoken to, asking about my wellbeing or just to say thank you,” says Nida. “It makes me hopeful and optimistic for the future.”

The relations built with the women went beyond the traditional roles we ascribe to ‘relief workers’ and ‘beneficiaries’. In fact, in all their experience sharing, the women who made the calls referred to women domestic workers as colleagues, partners, family.

“One of the women who spoke to me called me ‘beta’,” says Hargun. “It’s such a simple thing, but it made me hopeful, and really touched me.”

Hope and the will to keep going also emerged in the strength that domestic workers displayed. “I spoke to a woman who was pregnant and living alone with her other children. Her husband had left them,” recalls Samiksha. “When I asked her what she plans to do, she said she would stay, work and educate her children. We get bothered by the smallest problems, and here was a woman, willing to do everything to tackle something so big and challenging. It really inspired me.”

Women domestic workers in the MFF office package each COVID-19 Relief Kit with love and care.

And for women like Anita Kapoor and Sister Anushya, who have dedicated their lives to working with women domestic workers and gone above and beyond to support and be supported by women, the work brought small joys and proud moments.

“My proudest moment was when on International Domestic Workers’ Day, one of the domestic workers I work with took to the stage and proudly proclaimed her identity as a woman, and as a domestic worker,” says Sister Anushya.

What keeps them going? What motivates them to give so selflessly? These five women come from different walks of life, with different experiences and different perspectives. And yet, in this time of crisis, they banded together under one initiative, and kept themselves, their counterparts and the women they worked with, going. What is it, we (the MFF team) wonder.

 We don’t have answers. But today, after we’ve achieved an outreach of nearly 6000 women domestic workers in need during and after the second wave of COVID-19 in Delhi and Haryana, with their help, we’d like to extend our thanks to them. And all the others who were a part of this journey with us.

Thank you, Anita ji, Sister Anushya, Samiksha, Nida and Hargun. And thank you, Sarita ji, Sonia ji, Meera ji, Nitya Bhatt, Srijita, China ji, Sandhya, Akhalema ji, Neha, Bipasha, Harnoor, Sonam, Anjali, Shivangi, Shefali, Saroj ji, Monica ji, Anu ji and Chaya ji – thank you for being our frontline in this initiative, on behalf of the Foundation and the women domestic workers we worked with through this initiative.

By Nitya Sriram, interviews facilitated by Ishani Nangia

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